by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website. Click here to read more about Gary Ewer’s songwriting e-books.
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The chorus of a song helps to complete what the verse begins, lyrically, melodically and harmonically. And for many songwriters, beginning with the chorus, from which the title is usually extracted, is the norm. But songs without chorus, like “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (which uses a refrain), require you to keep your eye on the way the harmonies progress.
A song represents a type of harmonic journey which starts in a home key, moves away from it, and eventually returns. In the simplest 3-chord songs, you see this journey very clearly: The I-chord is home, the IV-chord is “away” (albeit close-by), the V-chord is poised at your doorstep, and then we get the return of the I-chord.
This little I – IV – V – I journey can be thought of in another way, in terms of harmonic tension: as you move away from the I-chord, you increase harmonic tension, and as you move back to the I-chord, the tension is resolved.
For many songs, the verse alone presents this journey as a complete package, harmonically speaking, before the chorus is ever reached. In other words, most verses will travel the I – IV – V – I route, and resolve its harmonic tension before reaching the chorus. So why then does it need a chorus? It’s because what is usually needing more development and resolution is the lyrical content and the melody.
Most choruses expand on the lyric in important ways, telling the listener how the singer feels. And most choruses will take that verse melody, and complete it with a more energetic melodic partner. In songs with choruses, the chorus exists to give resolution to lyric and melody. And in songs where the verse ends on any chord except the I-chord (usually the V-chord), the chorus also gives resolution to the harmony; it needs to get back to the I-chord eventually.
Which leads us (finally!) to our topic: what do we do about songs without a chorus? The two most common song forms that do not use a chorus are the verse-refrain format, and the continuous verse (AAA..) format.
If a song has a refrain, like “Bridge over Troubled Water,” you need to think of the refrain as a short, one-line chorus. The best way to approach a refrain is to ensure that the verse leading into it does not conclude harmonically. In other words, a verse in such a song needs to end on anything except the I-chord. If a verse ends on a I-chord, a refrain is not usually long enough to have the chance to present a new harmonic journey to the listener. Refrains are too short for that.
If the song is a continuous series of verses, then the verse needs to resolve harmonically. It needs to begin and end on the I-chord. But if you’re looking for a way to prevent boredom, try thinking of your verse in two parts, in two longish musical phrases, and see if you can work the following ideas into your verse:
- Allow the harmonies of your first phrase to need more; in other words, have the first 8 bars end on the V-chord, or some other chord other than the I-chord.
- Start the second phrase on something other than the I-chord. A vi-chord is a great replacement for a I, but the IV-chord is also a good choice. Then starting on that chord, bring the harmonies eventually back to I.
- Allow the melody of the first phrase to move upward, and use the second phrase to resolve it downward again.
- Have the first half of your lyric present thoughts and ideas that need to be resolved in the second half.
Amanda McBloom’s “The Rose”, made most famous by Bette Midler, is a great example of a verse-only song. The second half of the melodystarts on a Imaj7 chord, offering a beautiful dissonance that needs resolution. The melody winds its way upward, creating a tension that resolves by downward toward the end.
The verse-only format, as well as the verse-refrain plan, offer really interesting alternatives to the verse-chorus design. But no matter which you choose, the job is always to present musical elements that need resolution, and then… resolve them. That process of tension-release is what keeps listeners hooked on y our song.
If you’d like to learn more about how to write good songs, Gary Ewer’s songwriting e-books will show you songwriting in minute detail. By looking at the songs of award-winning songwriters, you’ll find out what makes a good melody, verse, chorus, hook, bridge, and more. And included in the e-books are tons of chord progressions you can use right now. Read more about these songwriting e-books by clicking here, and take advantage of a free offer.